by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Tackling Serious Issues
Even more so than in books for film, making games that deal with serious issues like mental health is no easy task. On one hand, it’s important to treat the subject matter with the respect and depth that it deserves. On the other, games are meant to be fun. Finding a way to address the inherent dissonance between those two ideas can easily lead to failure on both fronts, which is a loss for all parties involved. That being the case, I went into Drowning- developer Polygonal Wolf’s title about a student’s experience with severe depression- a bit nervous of just what I was going to get. What I ended up with is a bit of a mixed bag- a title that treats its serious subject matter with finesse and respect but fails to package it into an terribly compelling game. As a final note before we jump in to the review proper, since my reviews are normally spoiler-free, please note that this article does contain spoilers from the “Shaking Things Up” section onward.
The game starts with a simplicity that matches is low-poly graphic style. Standing on a forest path next to a lake, all you have to do is walk down a path. Each “level,” or map, lasts between five and fifteen minutes and covers one year of school, and as you walk forward you read text from our genderless, unnamed protagonist detailing their spirals in and out of the grasps of deepening depression. And that’s how the game progresses for 80% or so of the game: you’ll walk forward along a path amidst various nature scenery reading text that pops up as you walk forward. It’s with the writing of this story that the game most succeeds. I’m lucky enough to never have had to deal with depression myself, but, being an educator for my day job, I’ve run seen it affect students more times than I’m happy to admit. The story personifies depression, highlighting the persuasive, abusive-relationship-like role it can play in people’s lives, and did make me feel the complexities of the internal turmoil it can cause.
That being the case, a few things did spoil the mood for me a bit. First, transitioning between years isn’t very smooth, which does damage the vibe. Instead of finding a way to organically fade the music and visuals to black, everything ends in a sharp cut to the loading screen for the next section. Also, there were a few typos I found, including spelling “until” and “untill,” and leaving out the word “to” in the sentence “I thought I finally found a way remove you from my life.” I normally wouldn’t get too bend out of shape about two typos, but when you’re game is completely focused on looking at large text it seems like something that should be error-free.
Shaking Things Up
Eventually, after about 45-50 minutes of gameplay, things open up a little giving you a few choices to break up the linear narrative. After wrestling with depression, and realizing there doesn’t appear to be an escape, our unnamed narrator decides that his or her only option is to take their own life. One decision is whether to walk into a cabin, which triggers the character’s death via gunshot, or to keep walking. I didn’t know what was in the cabin, which lead me to die. I continued into another screen in which my depression told me he didn’t want any harm to come, and that I misunderstood him, and that I can go back to my life and seek treatment by walking through a large portal. This time I walked around the structure, which stuck me for eternity at a campfire with other people that had taken their lives. Credits rolled at 65 minutes of play-time (including 10-15 minutes of me pausing to take notes for this review), and I was told I’d gotten ending 3.
I’m torn on how the last 10 minutes went. I do think the game as a whole would have benefitted from more opportunities for a branching narrative, and the two branches I noticed were each organically written and followed. At the same time, though, I’ve got to admit that I feel pretty weird, as a person of sound mind, intentionally being asked to choose whether a depressed person should kill themselves or not, and I feel even stranger since I didn’t know what I was triggering when I walked into that cabin. Furthermore, with such a short run-time, replayability seems like a no-brainer, but two things make that easier said than done. First, are there many people that are going to want to go back and replay the game to intentionally have the narrator commit suicide if they saved them the first playthrough? Second, the game really is glacially paced for the first 45 minutes or so, and while the slow walk had it’s atmospheric moments the first time through I had zero motivation to hold the W key for that long again just to change the last few minutes. All of the replayability coming in the last 10 minutes seems like poor design, and I don’t see many people taking the time to get it done.
Despite not particularly caring for Drowning as a complete package, I do want to stress that I think the writing paints an affecting picture of depression without slipping into cliched, manufactured drama. I did enjoy connecting with the protagonist as much as one can enjoy getting into a troubled mind, and I think it does a good job of using personification to make depression as relatable as I can imagine it is for someone like me who’s never experienced it first hand. I just don’t particularly love how it all came together as an interactive experience. I’ve enjoyed more than a few “walking simulators” and other games with minimal actual gameplay, but there’s generally been more purpose to the interaction beyond holding down the forward button and turning now and again. The last few minutes remedy this to a point, but, in my opinion, don’t quite do enough to keep the interaction from being more of a chore than a treat.
Quality writing, vibrant environments to walk through
Minimal interaction, low motivation for replayability, awkward choices.